Harness Racing Australia has invested in a Kiwi-developed technology that its chairman Michael Taranto thinks could help transform the sport in Australasia - and worldwide.
Taranto was in Auckland this week to ink a deal with BestSeat360, a startup that has developed a system that sees 360-degree cameras mounted on drivers' heads feed video to punters' smartphones.
It makes for an immersive experience, with only a phone required rather than AR or VR goggles. A viewer can swivel their view of the action by swiping their finger across the video (not unlike changing your perspective in Google Street View, but with video) or by moving their phone.
BestSeat360 was created by Craig Meek, who made his bones in sports graphics with Virtual Spectator at the turn of the century - the real-time 3D software that made it easy to follow an America's Cup race. Before that he co-founded Terabyte Interactive, a multimedia agency and local dotcom boom-era success story that was sold for more than $10 million.
He calls his new startup an "Oceans Eleven" scenario where he's recruited a number of Virtual Spectator cohorts.
He also roped in Spark and Huawei as technology development partners. A prototype product has been trialled at Alexandra Park over the past month with the Inter Dominion Championship series.
Taranto flew over to see it first-hand and inked a deal at the Inter Dom final on Saturday night.
Some exciting things happening @AlexandraPark and I don’t just mean the ID’s! New technology being trialled...here’s a sneak peak of it working #bestseat360 really exciting stuff being developed 🙌 pic.twitter.com/du0f27ayik— Cassie Fahey (@cassiefahey) December 4, 2019
The figure hasn't been disclosed, but the Harness Racing Australia chairman tells the Herald it's modest - in the tens of thousands - but that he sees expanded involvement and big potential.
Taranto said his organisation will take the next couple of months to consider how it will deploy BestSeat360, but he sees three big advantages for the app: exposing harness racing to a younger generation of fans, providing new opportunities for betting, and what he diplomatically calls monitoring "the integrity of the sport". Drivers with cameras turned on each other will have limited opportunity for monkey business.
"Clearly the technology has massive application within Australia but given harness racing is a global sport, implications could be global as well," Taranto said. "It's revolutionary."
The Alexandra Park trial saw cameras mounted to the helmets of two or three drivers per race, with footage beamed to a select group of punters' smartphones - variously through YouTube and Microsoft's Azure over 4.5G.
Meek says he's looking forward to the rollout of 5G mobile technology here, whose greater bandwidth will allow for a camera on every driver's helmet (Vodafone launched its first 5G service this month; Spark will offer its first mobile 5G from July).
In the entrepreneur's typically accelerated fashion, he's already working on a new, lighter-weight 360-degree camera and harness setup with Spark (Meek claims the drivers are not averse to wearing a camera rig. "They love it. They see themselves becoming influencers on social media," he says).
The BestSeat360 founder has ambitions to evolve beyond a smartphone app to a partnership with a streaming service or a separate channel with a broadcaster's coverage (think Sky's Spidercam channel experiment with rugby) or, better, a picture-in-picture option.
And he sees AI being used to feed viewers not just immersive video but key stats about each horse's performance as a race progresses - which could be vital information for those placing a wager.
That brings us to a development that Meek is hoping for outside of technology: a law change to allow in-race betting.
An overhaul of our racing legislation is under way but as things stand, it's not breaking BestSeat360's way.
Asked about opening the door to in-race betting, Racing Minister Winston Peters told the Herald: "This is not being considered by the Government. As of now the new bill introduced to Parliament does not allow in-race betting, and so in effect keeps the prohibition which exists in the Racing Act 2003.
"However, the new bill is before Parliament and therefore will be subject to submissions as part of the parliamentary process." (The situation is also finely poised across the Tasman, where legislation is also in the process of being updated).
So if BestSeat360 investors want to bet on it, so to speak, there is a ray of hope.
Meanwhile, Meek has bigger plans. He says he chose harness racing because of the potential to monetise his app with in-race betting, and because he was surprised at the size of the sport (there are 12 raceways in NZ and 119 in Australia).
But he also wants to expand into thoroughbreds and then into other sports, including cricket.
He sees umpires wearing BestSeat360 cameras so that, say, a viewer who wanted a different angle on a wicket could tap between views.